Answer Three Questions to Build Better Blog Traffic

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This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

Local bloggers can lose a lot of sleep figuring out how to boost their traffic numbers. Following a cardinal rule from the world of public relations might help. Don’t just know who your audience is today: know who you want your audience to be tomorrow. Answering three simple questions right now will help you determine who those audience members should be…and how to reach them.

You’ve got to have a goal to get anywhere in the world, and that advice includes the blogosphere. Local bloggers who want to grow their audience could save some time by asking themselves three questions first:

  • Why? What’s the goal of increased traffic? Better ad revenue? Increased influence in local debate? Achieving recognition on the regional or national scene? Maybe all of these?
  • Who? Based on your goals, do a little brainstorming. In order to achieve your goals, what type of reader do you need to have tomorrow that you don’t yet have today? A local resident who visits your site multiple times a day? An A-List media outlet who can get your blog attention from other opinion leaders? A person who desperately needs to buy the products your niche affiliate ads are selling?
  • How? What’s the best way to reach your target readers? Then do some background research (do a lot, actually) into the sites being read by the target audience you’ve identified. What kind of topics are featured there and how are they presented in order to keep readers coming back? If your goal is to be read and featured by A-List bloggers, anaylze the content on their sites the same way.

Aim and Fire! Once you know what the readers you want to attract are reading on other sites and what the outlets you want to cover you are writing about, you can figure out a strategy to gain their attention. Armed with the results of your brainstorming and intelligence gathering, you have all the info you need to create an editorial plan for reaching your target readership, and therefore your goals.

This could mean creating an editorial calendar of appropriate topic areas on which to concentrate, a press list of A-List outlets to whom you should pitch your content, or adopting or refining a core element or functionality for your website. This could mean other things, too. All solutions don’t work on all sites. Your analysis will tell you the strategy and tactics you should choose to achieve your specific goals on your specific blog. The key is paying attention to what your future audience members are telling about how it wants you to reach out to them. And then following their lead.

Here are four popular Chicago-based blogs that really know their audience–both who their readers are today and who they need them to be tomorrow:

600 words By Esther J. Cepeda
Cepeda is an established Latina blogger covering the intersection of ethnicity and race with public policy and everyday life in Chicago. She and her a blog are both rarities in a country where the online sphere tends to be acutely white. Because of the dearth of Latina voices out there, by covering issues of ethnicity and race in Chicago’s public-policy space Cepeda frequently manages to launch debate on these issues into mainstream media. Being one of the first-in-class bloggers matters. (And Cepeda knows how to work her Technorati tags like nobody’s business, too.)

The District 299 Blog
Alexander Russo has a locked-in, permanently refreshing audience with his blog on the life and times of the Chicago Public Schools district. By a.) keeping a tight focus on CPS content, while at the same time b.) refusing to become an apologist for the district, Russo ensures for himself a readership that includes parents, teachers, administrators, and policy makers. Russo’s second strategy is an important one: remaining frank yet unbeholden to the industry he covers ensures trust from the members of his readership who don’t have a place at the policy table while effectively forcing insiders to make sure they know what he’s saying about them. (By contrast, being overly cozy with the industry you cover may leave you afraid to blog critically about it–and your readers will know why.)

WindyCitizen.com
Brad Flora’s popular local Digg-flavored website manages to generate a Pavlovian reaction from myriad Chicagoans who visit the site on a daily basis to see and vote on the news stories their fellow citizens find interesting from moment to moment. Flora’s site banks on stickiness. It once offered a network of blogs, but most have fallen by the wayside in deference to the site’s core functionality. No one really needs to read its blogs or remember the name of the site–or Flora’s name, for that matter–once Windy Citizen is bookmarked in their browsers. It’s a true audience-generating machine aimed at anyone who likes being newsy and nosey at the same time. And that keeps people coming back. (Another good example of a local Digg-like site is Cincinnati’s Cinplify.)

The Urbanophile
At the moment, Aaron Renn’s Urbanophile blog may be the Chicago blog with the best credibility in the potential audience-building department. On Urbanophile, Renn offers deep and thoughtful analysis of urban planning and policy issues affecting Chicago and other cities across the country. (Disclosure: I was engaged to help strategize and write foundational content for the recent overhaul of Renn’s blog.) Renn rarely writes on one level–his blog posts tend to cover both local issues and they way those issues are playing out on the national level. Keeping that global perspective in mind works wonders.

Recently two of Renn’s posts respectively covering thorny urban race issues and the potential for Detroit revitalization won coverage from national-level A-List media outlets including The Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan, Instapundit, Daily Kos, and today, the New York Times. That’s pretty good for a blog primarily about medium-sized hinterland cities. Moral of this story: if you’ve got a great blog, don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. Widely! (Read more about Renn’s national coverage in this Urbanophile post or in this Windy Citizen thread.)

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